Costco accepting food stamps: not exactly a great idea

Costco has started to accept food stamps at its warehouse clubs nationwide, which could be great for poor people looking for deals on food, or the worst decision in the history of buying groceries.

Anyone who has been to a Costco store knows the enticements of impulse buys that you'd normally walk by without a thought at any other store. Four pounds of red king crab for $99.99? Sure, why not? A deli meat party pack for $44.99? Yeah, we'll eat it eventually. Enough cashews to keep a squirrel happy for the winter? Bring it on.

Buying in bulk is great if you plan on emptying out your pantry within six months and the purchase was a deal too good to pass up, as I discussed in a recent podcast with a frugal chef.

And with a record 35 million people being helped through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in July, they sure can use the discounts offered at Costco. That's a 23% annual increase in the number of people using SNAP, proving that the recession hasn't ended yet.

The average monthly SNAP benefit last year was $101.52 per person. For a month. Try spending about $25 a week on groceries for yourself and see how far you get.

What will $25 per week get you at Costco? You can almost afford a tub of dried fruit, which will make for an interesting week of meals, or an assortment of smoked salmon.

Whatever you're buying at Costco, even for a family of four and the extra money that having kids brings in, it's going to take some creative financing and meal planning to buy enough bulk items to come up with a week's worth of meals.

I'm not saying that SNAP recipients can't budget their money and spend wisely. As a matter of survival they're probably better than most working families in budgeting for groceries and avoiding unhealthy impulse buys.

But the grocery carts at Costco are so big and the checkout lines so long that you feel like a dope if you've wasted an hour there and only walk out with a $25 jug of olives that will last for eternity.

There are no 15 items or less lines at Costco to speed things up because no one buys less than 15 items at a time. I've been a Costco member for about six years, and I don't think I've ever walked out of there without dropping at least $100.

And that's another issue -- is Costco waiving the annual membership fee for food stamp recipients? Doubtful. The $50 fee brings in much of its profit. I don't know how someone on food stamps who is shopping there maybe once a month can justify paying $50 for the privilege of shopping there for a year, but the enticing free food samples might make a meal in themselves during a visit and make the membership fee seem cheap.

I'm all for increasing the purchasing power of shoppers, but SNAP users may have to be protected from themselves. The federal program prevents some items such as liquor and cigarettes from being bought with SNAP benefits. Maybe it should add Costco to the list of banned purchases.

You can only eat so much peanut butter, no matter how good the sale was.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at
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